Perhaps it’s cliché to say this, but walking into the Carlyle Club is like stepping into another place and time. Yes, the décor is set in a striking art deco style reminiscent of the early 20th century. Yes, the music featured on the stage trends to the big-band hits that fuel a sense of nostalgia. And yes, the servers are clad in the kind of formal red coats that hint at an idealized version of Hollywood luxury. But owners Brennan and Sharon Reilly have created a whole that is more than a sum of its parts — an alternative universe where big-shouldered broads cut a rug with guys in zoot suits and wing-tipped shoes.
"Either we’ve cornered the market or there is no market," said Brennan Reilly last week, taking a break from overseeing the club’s opening-night festivities. "That fact is that if you’re over 35 and you want to go out to a nightclub, there’s no place to go because all the other nightclubs have been trending younger and younger."
Even though much of its allure is consciously old fashioned, there’s nothing stodgy or tiresome about the Carlyle Club. To the contrary, there’s something vaguely subversive about the U-shaped booths that line the perimeter of the restaurant and the one-way mirror that insulates the VIP room from the rest of the gin joint. And there’s no doubt that our modern-day zeitgeist shares a great deal with that anxious era when Harry Truman plotted America’s Cold War strategy across the world map. So as the blue velvet curtain opened to reveal Doc Scantlin and his Imperial Palms Orchestra last Friday night, Brennan was understandably pleased with his five-year pursuit of a dream that has finally come to fruition.
"Finding the right space was the biggest hurdle," said Brennan, an Alexandria native. "We needed high ceilings to create the right atmosphere — and lots of space."
THE CLUB’S ATMOSPHERICS have been meticulously crafted to superimpose a sense of big city elegance in an area of town best known for sandwich shops and coffee bars. City officials have been publicly bemoaning the lack of sit-down dining in the area for years, and the retail shops that were supposed to ring Carlyle Circle never seemed to materialize as planned. The entire area seems to turn into a ghost town as the afternoon Metro trains carry employees of the nearby Patent and Trade Office home. Yet the feeling last week at the Carlyle Club was that all that was about to change.
"We’re going to bring everybody across the Potomac to have some fun," boasted server Drake Daughdrill, as he delivered a martini to a patron in the bar area. "This is the only place in the Washington region where you can come for dinner and swing dancing."
Walking in the front door, one is immediately struck by the "Carlyle Club" logo that has been beautifully patterned in the nostalgic terrazzo floor. Several metal panels in the club were taken directly from the set of the 2004 Miramax flick "The Aviator" — a benchmark for the kind of elegance the Brennans hoped to strike in Carlyle. Huge blue velvet curtains frame giant mirrors that act as windows to a distant world that could be New York in the 1920s or Chicago in the 1930s.
"It’s Fred Astaire and Howard Hughes," said maitre de Jay Schiefer in a pithy description of the interior. "No expense was spared."
A WORLD OF ELEGANCE is cast across every piece of furniture and architectural detail. Even the custom-made doors carry through on the promise of refinement and grace by offering angular art-deco doorknobs. The women’s room offers its own sense of paradise, offering the dames a chance to have a seat and powder their noses while dishing the dirt on which guy cuts the best Charleston. The only thing missing is the cloud of smoke created by an army of Lucky Strikes — clearly a nonstarter in a city trying to use its zoning authority to force bars and restaurants to go smoke free. Instead of cigarette smoke, the Carlyle uses a series of opaque panels cast an ever changing glow in the club.
"There’s blue tonight," said Brennan. "But they’ll be red for Valentine’s Day and green for St. Patrick’s Day."
The restaurant’s menu offers an upscale Zagat-rated American fare that’s wide ranging yet not particularly vegetarian friendly. For opening night, the entrée options were grilled filet of salmon with pineapple mango salsa, sautéed jumbo lump crab cakes with roasted corn chipotle salsa or a 22-ounce rib eye steak with Jack Daniels chive butter known as the "Carlyle Cowboy Steak." The food is clearly grand, but the real attraction for opening night was on the stage, where Doc Scantlin’s domineering stage presence stole the show — and then some.
"It’s nice to see everybody resembled here for this auspicious occasion," Scantlin cracked, an unlit cigar dangling from his lips. "Welcome to Washington’s only nightclub for adults who like to eat drink and do other things."